“This was my first time being nominated for the NIFA, and to win the category, when there were so many incredible other businesses and art centres involved, was really quite humbling,” Thompson, a Gunditjmara woman, told Inside Retail.
Clothing The Gaps has grown rapidly since coming onto the fashion scene less than three years ago. A major turning point for the social enterprise was the 2020 murder of African-American man George Floyd in the US, which led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The Australian public started to learn about and feel outrage about Black lives in Australia, and that really piqued sales at Clothing the Gaps,” Thompson said.
“We only had one or two T-shirts available, but that moment in history allowed us to significantly grow our audience. It’s probably that same audience that we continue to sell to, and we continue to grow.”
Best known for its “Always was, always will be” T-shirt, the brand recently started labelling its clothes as being either ally-friendly or for mob only.
“It created a more coordinated response to the question that was always in our inbox, which was, ‘Can I wear that?’” Thompson explained.
“After we labelled our clothes, we saw a significant increase in sales. People thanked us for making shopping easy for them, and answering that question for them.”
Clothing The Gaps is all about selling “merch with a message”. The brand made its Australian Fashion Week debut in May, which saw models walking down the runway holding signs showing their mobs, bringing the audience to their feet.
“What I’m learning about now is voice, treaty, truth, and how we have these conversations in community using the power of fashion,” Thompson said.
Power of fashion
Thompson is a firm believer in the power of fashion to create change. She was the architect of the “free the flag” campaign, which raised awareness about the fact that a private, non-Indigenous company held the copyright for the Aboriginal flag.
The campaign drew support from AFL clubs around the country and sparked a Senate inquiry, which ultimately led to the Australian government buying the copyright to the Aboriginal flag earlier this year, making it free for anyone to use.
“How we used fashion as a vehicle to mobilise the community to take action that led to better political and social outcomes for the Aboriginal community” is one of her proudest achievements, Thompson said.
But she believes the responsibility shouldn’t just be on Indigenous brands to create change; it needs to be shared by the entire industry.
“We’ve seen what happens when other brands start to use their platform to talk about social issues,” she said. “When we were leading the ‘free the flag’ campaign, brands like Lush, The Body Shop and Sportsgirl shared our content across their socials. That opened up conversations to whole new audiences that we may not have reached.”
With the Australian Government now discussing a referendum to enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the constitution, Thompson believes it’s more important than ever for non-Indigenous brands to show their support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“If we’re going to get a yes, we’re going to need all brands, not just Black brands,” she said.
Unlike Thompson, Ngali founder and winner of this year’s Fashion Designer Award Denni Francisco is no stranger to NIFA. Last year, she took home the same award, which includes a 12-month mentorship with Country Road.
Speaking about her back-to-back wins, the Wiradjuri designer told Inside Retail that she is committed to using her platform to create opportunities for other First Nations brands.
As part of this year’s Melbourne Fashion Week, Francisco will be hosting a salon to engage First Nations creatives around every facet of the fashion industry, from videography and portraiture, to accessories. The initiative is being supported by Lendlease. She will also be showing a collection as part of the opening runway.
“There’s such a bubbling of excitement. It’s really affirming that First Nations have a place in Australian fashion,” she said.
Ngali was founded to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork to the world. Francisco works with artists to translate their designs onto her clothing and accessories, which are mostly made out of silk and come in modern silhouettes.
An experienced designer and retailer, Francisco said she received practical advice about ways to improve her critical path, marketing strategy and e-commerce site during her mentorship with Country Road.
As part of their work together, some of Francsisco’s designs were also displayed in Country Road’s Chadstone store during Naidoc Week this year, helping to raise Ngali’s brand awareness.
Up to now, Ngali has mostly been sold online, but Francisco plans to open a studio in Melbourne in September.